Compassion Can Be Discrimination: Sign The Petition Against Subminimum Wages
04/08/2013 - 14:22
Anil Lewis
Anil Lewis
Anil Lewis

Most theological references to people with disabilities portray us as broken people in need of healing who are dependent on the benevolence of others. Also, most faith traditions have a moral imperative to seek salvation by caring for the less fortunate, and people with disabilities, being deemed less fortunate, are therefore tokens for that salvation. The false perception of brokenness, coupled with the misapplied moral edict, results in a “compassionate discrimination” that limits the potential of every person with a disability.

Compassionate discrimination, like other types of discrimination, springs from ignorance, and deprives us all of the value each person and group of people has to offer. But unlike the abusive treatment of slaves resulting from racial discrimination, and unlike the chauvinistic treatment of women resulting from gender discrimination, compassionate discrimination is cloaked in sympathy and good intentions. The segregation of African-Americans in educational, employment, and living environments is unlawful and universally censured—no questions asked, no exceptions. Conversely, the segregation of people with disabilities in school, work, and home is justified as the creation of safe environments where we are nurtured and protected. 

The 20 to 30 percent wage disparity between male and female employees is considered a discriminatory practice in the workplace. But perversely, the disparity between an executive’s $500,000 salary and the 22-cent-per-hour wage of the worker with a disability is considered reasonable. Work at such wages is even promoted as an opportunity for the disabled worker to experience the tangible and intangible benefits of work. Given this confused moral perspective, it is almost understandable why public policies have been developed that continues to limit people with disabilities from reaching our full potential.

In 1938, policymakers, acting on a laudable desire to integrate people with disabilities into the workforce, made a huge mistake when they enacted Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act That provision that authorizes the U.S. Department of Labor to issue Special Wage Certificates to employers, permitting them to pay workers with disabilities less than the federal minimum wage. As a result of the erroneous belief, commonly held in 1938 but long since disproved, that people with disabilities cannot be productive employees, employers are permitted to pay workers with disabilities subminimum wages that are supposedly based on our productivity. This denial of fundamental wage protections to workers with disabilities, although masked as a compassionate offering of a work opportunity that would otherwise not be available, leaves over 300,000 people with disabilities employed at subminimum wages, some as low as three cents per hour. 

A person with a disability is not less valuable than any other person, and although employing that person may require the use of nontraditional training and employment strategies, a worker with a disability is not inherently less productive than a nondisabled worker. Section 14(c) is a poor public policy that perpetuates compassionate discrimination and harms people with disabilities by denying us proper education and training opportunities, and by prohibiting most of us from obtaining competitive, integrated employment.   

It is true that over 70 percent of people with disabilities are unemployed, but current segregated subminimum-wage work environments have proven that they are not the solution to this dilemma. We must understand that it is not the disability itself that causes this circumstance. It is the lack of understanding about the true capacity of people with disabilities that results in the misperception that we cannot be productive. Once this misperception has been embraced, it is difficult, if not impossible, for us to obtain real opportunities to demonstrate that we have that capacity. Rather than challenging the mistaken status quo, society’s “compassionate” remedy is to continue to create “safe,” segregated living, educational, and work environments for people with disabilities. 

In order to implement a real solution to the unemployment problem, we must remove the mask of compassion from the discrimination we face. We must eliminate the “separate but equal” environments and we must repeal the discriminatory policies that are founded on the flawed assertion of incapacity. We can achieve this goal. Congressman Gregg Harper has introduced the Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act of 2013 (H.R. 831) to repeal Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, and an online petition that you can sign to support the repeal of Section 14(c) can be found at

We are not broken. Our disabilities are neither a curse from God nor penance for our sins. They are a manifestation of the life with which God has blessed us, and although the vessels which contain them are different, we have the same needs, desires, and abilities as everyone else. People with disabilities are not passive recipients of benevolence, we are also benevolent. We clothe the naked, we feed the hungry, we care for the sick and we demonstrate the capacity to believe, to have faith, and to worship God. We demand to be fully participating members of society, and we refuse to be reduced to the status of tokens for the salvation of others.

Anil Lewis was born in 1964 in Atlanta, Georgia.  Lewis was diagnosed at age nine with retinitis pigmentosa, although his vision was fairly unaffected until 1989.  He has a master’s in business administration in computer information systems and a master’s in public administration from Georgia State University. He has developed a job placement program for people with disabilities, represented people with disabilities in a law office and headed Georgia’s chapter of the National Federation of the Blind Today, he lives in Baltimore, Maryland and is the Director of Advocacy and Policy at the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. He works with the NFB’s government affairs team to eliminate subminimum wages and the antiquated notion that blind and disabled people cannot be productive members of society. He is also the proud father of Amari, his bright, ambitious son. 

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a persons salary should be determined by the marketplace. If a "disbaled" oerson can be a value to an employer then they should be compensated accordingly. often its a charitable issue. Many employers hire the handicapped because they get a break on their salary and they also have a chance to be charitable by giving a job to someone not easily able to achieve one otherwise.
By making it a rights issue you eliminate that benefit to an employer and may also be eliminating that job entirely. Like minimum wage in general good intentions have to match reason.

Blind persons have the right to be paid fair wages. 14c is unconstitutional and should be dissolved.

As a special education teacher, I found this article extremely relevant and well written.
You bring to light a very important message and I thank you for this article!!

If the disabled person is able to get through all of the 'red tape' to get the job; does it as well, if not better than his co-workers ~ he/she should NEVER be offered subminimum wages! This so-called law is unconstitutional since it is not based on the ability but the disability only ~ that 'label' that the child receives just to get to the correct program or services to survive in society should not be punishment once this child grows up and prove themselves. These hard working, intelligent individuals should be treated as my equal in the workforce. Perhaps Fair Wages for Workers with Disabilities Act of 2013 (H.R. 831) Section 14(c) of the Fair Labor Standards Act should be mandatory for all the people who prove by their work ethic that they only have a job because of who they know; and they are NOT productive at all. Get rid of this head count and we would have the real workers with a physical disability improve our economy as they show their honest, integral part of society making the USA a strong nation once again!

Disabled individuals have a far way to go as far as being excepted as equal human beeings within America. I attribute this to the following. People normally do not like change. We are a country hystoricly rezistant to change since we are slow to progress. Furthermore, untill our nation values education we will continue to face many of our social problems as disabled people. Finally, I think many of the laws in-place need to be analysed and revised. Little insentives are offered to people to learn and interact with us. In stead, healthcare providers want to keep us secluded by deaming us unfit for work. This puts many in a tough situation. They either need to work for sub minamum wages; or, receive restricted government bennifits. Many do better financially with the bennifits they are provided. We are a nation that keeps up with technology; yet, many individuals do not understand how a disabled person can use technology. For example, having the ability to use facebook means nothing when you drop-out before finishing high school, as a result of your socioeconomic status and other factors. Untill we adapt to using technology and other resources as tools of production, we will have a difficult time getting the message accross. I have a lot of other things I could say; however, they could be reserved for a later post.

I am not blind. Because of my job I have met blind lawyers, blind teachers, a blind man who cut metal pipes in a factory, a blind farmer, blind electrical engineers, blind secretaries, blind inventors, blind carpenters, a blind mountain climber who conquered Mount Everest (!), blind housekeepers who care very well for their families, and blind persons in many other professions. Every one of them, at some point, had to educate or work around "compassionate discrimination” to obtain or do the normal things of life others take for granted. Let's remove this ridiculous provision from the law books of the United States.

I support all equal rights

People with disabilities deserve the same amount of pay!

fair wages for those with disabilites, there are just as valuable and skilled as those without disabilities!

I would love to sign the petition. I am a blind man raising 2 young boys on my own.